To commemorate International Literacy Day, USAID/Iraq, through its Community Action Program,  handed out 1,200 certificates to the graduates of women literacy program called “Women’s Awareness and Inclusion Program (WAI)”.

USAID’s Women’s Awareness and Inclusion (WAI) program, implemented across the southern provinces of Basra, Dhi Qar, Muthanna and Mayson, empowers women through literacy and social inclusion programs. With over 23,000 participants since 2005, USAID supports women in shaping Iraq’s future by providing one-year basic literacy and numeracy trainings which are supplemented with educational modules on cultural and social awareness topics, such as democracy and governance, human and women’s rights, needs identification and prioritization – vital tools for women, as they work to become powerful advocates and leaders in their communities.

Elderly student takes her final literacy exam to qualify for graduation. Photo Credit: Mercy Corps

Many women in Iraq are unable to independently read and complete forms, do basic arithmetic and money management, help their children with schoolwork, and participate meaningfully in basic household and community decision-making.  The official government statistics say that 29.2% of Iraqi women living in rural areas, between the ages of 15-49, have never received any basic education and are unable to read and write.  This statistic does not reflect the number of women and girls who were unable to attend school in the last six years due to violence and insecurity in their communities, or those who received some schooling, but dropped out due to cultural, economic or security restraints.

As a result of their lack of education, Iraqi women struggle to engage meaningfully with their communities, advocate for their needs and those of their families, obtain employment, utilize public services and participate in the governance process. Their voices are often lost in elections,  and in conversations about social and political issues and they are practically excluded from helping to shape today’s Iraq. In order to truly engage in community and in national decision-making, Iraqi women need the knowledge and skills learned through basic education.

To begin responding to this need, USAID, together with its implementing partner Mercy Corps, piloted its Women’s Awareness and Inclusion Program (WAI) in Maysan governorate of south Iraq in 2005, as part of its Community Action Program (CAP). Beginning as a “Literacy Campaign for Women”, the small program was met by increasing demand from women and community leaders and continued to expand in response to this overwhelming level of interest.

Today, over 10,000 women and teenage girls are enrolled in the program through 226 WAI centers across the southern governorates of Basra, Maysan, Muthanna and Thi Qar. The WAI program provides women with the basic literacy and numeracy skills they need to become involved in their communities and engaged in the governance process. Community support for the program has been strong, and provincial-level Departments of Education have contributed to the initiative through the donation of school facilities, textbooks and supplies.

In addition to empowering beneficiary women, this program provides an opportunity to work with and build the capacity of women-led and women-focused NGOs in South Iraq, helping them to provide quality services to women.

Benefits cited by participants include the ability to read and write without assistance, negotiate better prices in the markets and assist their children with schoolwork. Participants also reported higher levels of self-confidence and independence as well as an increased ability to participate in household decision-making. This information has been obtained through beneficiary interviews, small-scale surveys and periodic focus group discussions with participating women.